Ten years, one story

The writing workshop that I teach for eight year olds was not going well. One bespectacled boy had decided he didn’t want to write any more. He left his laptop computer, thrust his face into the trash basket, and shouted, “I’m a dog! Look at me, everyone, I’m a dog!”

“Why don’t you want to work on your story?” I asked, ignoring the fact that he was now chewing on a piece of waste paper.

“ I hate it!” he wailed. “I’ve been working on that story and I’m sick of it! I’m a dog now!”

I crouched down next to him.  I don’t know why I said it, but I did. “Well, I worked on a story for eight years,” I told him. “Eight years. And it’s just been published.”

“Seriously? Eight years?” He stopped chewing on the piece of paper and looked up at me with his mouth open.

“Not all the time. Off and on, but, yes, eight years. That’s what writers do. Now come on and let’s work on your story.”

We went back to the couch and as I read his story out loud, he grew enthusiastic again. Soon we were writing away about a Martian war.

It was only after the workshop ended, and I was walking home, did I begin to think about my story.

Had it really taken me eight years to write it? Thinking back, I realized that it had actually taken longer. Maybe ten years.

The story—which New England Review had just published as “A Taste of Revolution”—had predated the birth of my now ten year-old son. It had survived my divorce, my years in the wilderness, my re-marriage, and what I now think of as my rehabilitation as a writer.

When I got home, I pulled the slim issue off my shelf. I re-read my story, waiting for that shudder of embarrassment, but none came. The story was tight. I could even read it as though I hadn’t written it, savoring an image here, a turn of phrase there. Not bad, I thought, as I put it away.

The core of the story had remained the same, all those years. A young boy goes to the bazaar in Calcutta with his grandmother. While they’re there, they get caught up in the tumult of a Maoist uprising, and must hide in a shop. They can hear—but not see—what is happening outside, as the army arrives and begins to shoot.

That part of the story is pure memory. I had carried it with me, like an ache, for many years, before I finally wrote it down.

Why had I written this story? What made me survive the decade or more of its writing? Like a detective, I went back over the story, looking for clues.

In it, I found a younger version of myself. Not the boy in the story, but a younger man, the one who wanted to write about the boy. The man who woke at 5 AM to write before work. The man who dreamed of stories and novels during construction meetings and on job-sites.

Remembering that decade—while my life fell apart, or rather, as the dichotomy grew between the life I was leading (no time to write) and the life I imagined (a partner who understood my wish to write, time and blessed space to put words on paper)—I realize that there was one constant.

One evening a week, I’d print out whatever I’d written (at work of course, looking over my shoulder to make sure no one had spotted me), and head out to the Grub Street Writer’s Center.

There, in an over-heated room, I was safe. Sitting at a long table presided over by my writing teacher, all of us were engaged in an act of collective dreaming. As we read each other’s stories and talked and talked, I was told that my work was “lush,” “lyrical,” but that nothing ever happened.

During the breaks, my classmates would say to me, “Hey, you should work on that piece. You’re almost there. Then send it out.”

I’d nod and sip water, and think, Me? I don’t think so.

I got divorced. I went to class every week, like therapy, like confession.

I worked on my story. Now the boy and his grandmother went to the bazaar, but while he was hiding in the shop, with a war raging outside, he wanted some chocolate. (After all, they were always telling us in workshop that your character has to want something, right?)

I got really sick. There were times when I couldn’t walk. I had no money, so I asked Grub Street for a scholarship. Not once, but three or four times. They said, Sure. I kept going to class.

I rewrote the story. I showed it to my classmates, and they said, “The language is great, but nothing happens. Something has to happen. It’s a story, yes? If the kid wants some chocolate and gets it, that’s not a story.”

I was starting to get tired. This was around year seven. I felt hurt. Perhaps I couldn’t write short stories. What was all this talk about things happening?

After about a three-year break (I was remarried in that time, and moved to two different cities, and somehow the story travelled with me, in its own tattered folder) I decided to give the story one last try. When I re-read it, it was as though the molecules in my body had been re-arranged. I was not the same person who had written it. All those hours of talk about narrative arc and plot and character development had rewired my brain.

I wrapped the core of my story—the bazaar scene—in another story. The boy is living with his grandmother because his mother is dead. Everybody hides this fact from him, but the boy actually knows all about it. He is just politely engaging in a game. The incident in the bazaar shakes everything loose, and at the end of the story, the truth comes out. Something has changed.

I re-wrote it and sent it out, and forgot about it. A year later the New England Review said they wanted to publish it, and they did.

After it was in print, two agents read it and wrote to me. They asked if I had a longer work. And guess what? I did.

I had just finished a novel—of all things, a thriller. Completely plot driven. Lots of things happened. All those years of being told I was a “lush” and “lyrical” writer had their effect.

Wish me luck now. I don’t want to work on this novel for a decade. Thanks to what I’ve learned, I probably won’t have to.

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